The Ironman Triathlon will return to Morro Bay next year, but a significant change was made in the scheduling to try and make the mega-event more palatable for local businesses.
The City Council voted to move the day of the triathlon, which drew over 2,000 participants and thousands of spectators to town on May 20, when it returns in 2024 but will be held on Sunday, May 19 instead of Saturday, May 18; and in 2025, the event is scheduled for Sunday, May 18 instead of Saturday the 17th.
“The event was successful, safe, organized, and enjoyed overall community support,” reads a report from Police Chief Amy Watkins, who was the City’s point person on the event. “The event welcomed two thousand athletes and an additional five thousand spectators to our community during the weekend. Athletes and their families arrived the week prior to settle in, register, and practice the course.”
Chief Watkins said they met with business owners about what the event would entail — road closures and the potential impacts. “This year being the inaugural event,” she said, “City staff, tourism, and businesses prepared for the event to have a large impact on businesses on the Embarcadero and along the racecourse.
“As the event started, we saw a large impact on the Embarcadero with about 50% of the businesses seeing an increase in overall business because of the event. The other 50% of the businesses saw fewer customers and less business because of the road closures and the shortened run course creating an opportunity for spectators to see their athletes more often than initially anticipated. The event closed Embarcadero Road from the Rock Parking lot to Pacific Street from 4 a.m. to 4 p.m.”
That extended closure on the main tourism area and the takeover by the event of the City’s parking lot at 714 Embarcadero, meant parking was at a premium and business that day was not so good for many.
The IRONMAN Group coming to Morro Bay was largely due to the efforts of the Visit Morro Bay tourism board and holding it on Saturday was believed to be better for sport fishermen that might be in town that day.
That’s because the original turnaround location was at the launch ramp parking lot. Mid-May is prime salmon fishing season for sport anglers and the launch ramp is usually very busy starting with the April 1 season opener and throughout salmon season, weather permitting, and the fish are biting.
But before the race, IRONMAN Group moved the transition spot to Morro Rock. That necessitated a change to the swim course of the event, and swimmers came out of the water at Target Rock instead of the launch ramp. The running course too was shortened.
So far as the moteliers are concerned, it was a success.
“According to Mr. [Michael] Wambolt [executive director of Visit Morro Bay],” Chief Watkins said, “the lodging segment during this year’s race did show an overall positive impact as it brought compression, which supported rate growth and overall revenue. Race week [May 14- May 20] was the third highest RevPAR [revenue per available room] when compared to the same weeks going back to 2018.
“However, some properties were left with rooms to sell on Saturday due to some athletes departing Morro Bay after the race concluded. As a result of this, the travel window was inverted: Friday was the busiest day and Saturday was a little soft.”
By moving the remaining two races in the City’s contract to Sundays, it’s believed that will help businesses on those Saturdays.
Watkins said Wambolt believes “moving the race to Sunday could help support non-lodging businesses on the peak weekend day of Saturday. There would not be road closures until the evening of Saturday and early Sunday morning, which would provide for an open travel path for cross visitation and day travelers to Morro Bay on Saturday and therefore help support retail and restaurants during what should be their busiest day of the week.”
The IRONMAN Group has agreed to the scheduling change and Chief Watkins said they’re planning to add an “Ironkids” race, “where kids from around the area and athletes’ kids will be invited to compete in a small race that promotes health, fun, and community.”
The comments sent to the council before the meeting were mixed as well. Former City Councilwoman Betty Winholtz wrote that she was concerned with the swimmers messing with the town’s furry mascots, sea otters.
“I hope you will either now or at another time address the concern regarding the swim competition near the sea otters. Please include whether you or Ironman have consulted with CA Fish and Wildlife and their response.”
Beads by the Bay owner, Susan Stewart said, “I have a business in the Downtown area, and had decent sales days on the preceding weekdays and Saturday of the Ironman event. I also talked to customers mid-week who had arrived early with the purpose of shopping! But, I have always thought that Sunday would be a much better day to have special events, as Saturday is already a tourist saturated day.”
Since Ironman was controversial and even angered some businesspeople who saw their sales fall off a cliff due mainly to the road closure and loss of parking, the Chamber of Commerce polled local businesses on how they felt about the event.
The respondents, the majority of which were Embarcadero businesses, were asked to compare sales on that race day Saturday verses the same Saturday last year (2022), and 40-percent said sales were higher or about the same, and 47% said they were lower.
When comparing sales from 2023 to 2019 (pre-pandemic) again 40% said sales were higher or the same and 38% said they were lower.
On a weekly basis, 49% said sales were higher or the same in the week leading up to the weekend race; and 31% said they were lower.
It should be noted that 51% of the respondents were on the Embarcadero, 40% were Downtown, and 10% in North Morro Bay, which saw no road closures at all.
Also, 36% of the respondents were retail stores, 36% food and beverage, and 14.5% were motels and lodging businesses.
Also of note, even though the COVID-19 pandemic saw State Government shut down much of the tourism economy, including prohibiting restaurants from using their dining rooms, Morro Bay had an extremely busy summer in 2020, though sales were inevitably down with restaurants scrambling to put together outdoor dining areas to try and stay afloat and retail stores mainly being forced to close.
The pandemic was a hard time to be in business overall.
Like the Amgen Tour of California professional cycling race that made appearances a couple of times in Morro Bay before dying and going out of business, the Ironman 70.3 was a chance for Morro Bay to host an event with a worldwide following, as the Florida-based company stages triathlons all over the U.S. and Europe, including a world championship.